The beauty of American Horror Story is that, if one season’s story doesn’t strike your fancy, all you have to do is watch another season to get a completely different story. In a world where many television shows are bled dry until they are a shadow of their former selves, this is a refreshing quality.
This season, American Horror Story: Hotel opens in Los Angeles at the Hotel Cortez, where two Swedish tourists are checking in. The hotel, beautiful though it is, is not what they expect. From the frigid welcome by Iris (Kathy Bates), to the maid cleaning a sheet with a suspicious stain, to the Kubrik-esque creepy children who stand at the ends of hallways only to disappear, the Swedish girls are naturally uneasy. This soon develops into outright terror as a foul smell leads them to discovering some humanoid creature sewn into the mattress before the opening credits even roll.
From there, it’s a series of vignettes that attempt to introduce the various characters and their own brands of addiction. Most of the characters seem to want little to do with one another, but they work together to keep the hotel a safe haven of sorts. Not for outsiders, obviously, but for its depraved inhabitants. At first it is a bit unbelievable that such awful things could regularly occur under the roof of a hotel in the middle of the city, but the nightly news shows us enough bad in the real world that it quickly becomes plausible. It leads you to question what people like this could be scared of, a question that it seems the show will attempt to answer through Cheyenne Jackson’s character Will Drake. Only time will tell.
Most of the show’s veterans seem to take a backseat this episode, with only short scenes and flashbacks to give a hint of the mystery surrounding the hotel and of the sex and violence that darken every corner. Instead, new cast members are given most of the spotlight.
Wes Bentley has upgraded from being a guest star in Freakshow to a headliner in Hotel. He plays John Lowe, a cop with a shadow he can’t escape and a past he’s desperately trying to make up for. He is searching for a killer reminiscent of the one in Se7en, but one whose kink seems to be the 10 Commandments of the Bible instead of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Another new face, Lady Gaga seems to have replaced Jessica Lange as the matriarch of the show. She plays the Countess, and it is only with her blessing that anything major happens in the hotel. A woman of few words but large presence, the Countess and her pet/lover (played by Matt Bomer) have a silent introduction in which they seduce a young couple into coming back to the hotel with them. This scene pushes the boundaries of what’s allowed on cable without actually being as inappropriate as I expected, based on the talk surrounding it, probably because the viewer is too busy waiting on the other, violent shoe to drop.
The Countess is a quietly menacing character, but that could be because we already know to expect the center of the show’s universe to be up to something. Honestly, her wardrobe and makeup, though stunning, are not much different from something Lady Gaga would wear in one of her own music videos. So it may take a couple more episodes before I stop seeing “Lady Gaga-if-her-stage-persona-were-a-crazed-murderer” and start seeing just the Countess.
There are a lot of questions to be answered this season and based on the first episode we are in for a horrific journey before we get our answers. But it’s a journey horror fans can look forward to. So settle in and enjoy your stay at the Hotel Cortez with its monstrous inhabitants for the rest of the season.
AHS: Hotel is shown on Wednesdays at 10PM on FX.